Even with vacancy rates for regional and super-regional shopping centers reaching a record 11.4% for Q1, according to Moody’s REIS, foot traffic at malls could come swinging back with a vengeance in 2021, according to a new analysis from Placer.ai.

The firm’s analysis of more than 50 top tier malls throughout the country indicates that the sector has steadily been shortening year-over-year gaps since November. And while tough weather patterns across major regions in the US limited the recovery somewhat, March was a blockbuster month for malls, with visits increasing 86% year-over-year.

But there’s another “but,” Placer.ai notes: “while this number is indeed impressive, it is also a very limited indicator as much of these same malls were already closed by mid-month in 2020, thus challenging the effectiveness of the metric to show what is really happening in context,” the firm notes.

A better alternative? Compare 2021 visits to 2019 levels at the same malls, which narrows the visit gap to 23.9%. “This was buoyed heavily by a 43.6% jump in visits between February and March further indicating that the ‘return’ to malls is in fact in full swing,” according to Placer.ai “And even accounting for the weather challenges in February and the fewer overall days, there was still a 25.7% jump in visits in March when compared to January, which had been a high point for the sector until then.”

Weekly visits also increased consistently throughout late February and early March compared to the week prior. Visits during the weeks of March 15 and 22 were 19.1% higher than the preceding two weeks and represented high points in the recovery. 

“Does this mean the mall sector has completed its recovery? Certainly not,” Placer.ai’s Ethan Chernofsky writes. “But it does mean that top tier malls throughout the country still have exceptional strength. Their continued capacity to rebound quickly when given the opportunity speaks to the continued strength in the sector, and explains why the format still deserves its lofty position within the retail landscape.”

The retail sector, which was already in flux prior to the pandemic, has been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic. Retail rent growth slumped 0.5% at year’s end, marking the first time the US retail market has seen negative rent growth since 2011, and a recent analysis from Colliers says the trajectory is expected to continue this year. The firm predicts retail rents will fall 3% this year and should return to pre-pandemic levels in 2022, noting that rent collections continue to tick up and signal stabilization may be on the horizon.